William Morris On What Life Might Be

What William Morris Has To Say

by Peter Brooke

The question of the relation between ‘high’ or ‘fine’ art and everyday art is touched on by William Morris in his great essay, The Lesser Arts.[A] Rather than follow Madawc Williams across the vast terrain covered by his article, I think it would be useful to try to summarise what Morris has to say. [See Green Culture and Commodity Production, L&TUR No. 29.]

Morris delivered The Lesser Arts as a lecture to the Trades Guild of Learning, probably in the Co-operative Hall, London, in April 1877. It was his first public lecture. He was already well-known and fashionable both as a poet and as a manufacturer of furniture, wallpapers and textiles. He had a pleasantly light attitude towards his own achievements. When his Pre-Raphaelite friends admired his first major poem – The Defence of Guinevere, published in 1858 – he replied:

“Well. if this is poetry, it is very easy to write”.[B] He also commented (to E.P. Thompson’s disgust): “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving a tapestry, he’d better shut up; he’ll never do any good at all” (ibid. pp. 188-9). And, with regard to his own craft, he said: “My work is simple work enough; much of it, nor that the least pleasant, any man of decent intelligence could do.” (p.309).

Morris had an enormous appetite for work and took enormous pleasure in it. He was rich (from and inherited fortune) and famous. The Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, called him the happiest of poets and said:

“If some angel offered me the choice, I would choose to live his life … rather than my own or any other man’ s” (Thompson, p.554).

Yet in 1883, he put his fortune and his energy into the newly formed Social Democratic Federation, the first Marxist organisation in Britain. In his first lecture after joining the Federation, Art, Wealth and Riches, March 1883, he said: “My business herein is to spread discontent. I do not think that this is an unimportant office; for, as discontent spreads, the yearning for bettering the state of things spreads with it” (p.308).

Aesthetic Discontent

Why should Morris, who seemed to have few personal reasons for discontent, want to “spread discontent”? The reason could be seen, and was widely seen at the time, as aesthetic. The London Echo complained in October 1884: “he would disturb the foundations of Society in order that a higher artistic value may be given to our carpets … ” (p.310)

This is not a bad summary but there is of course more to be said. Morris greatly enjoyed his work. But he became more and more aware that most people in the society around him did not enjoy their work – that their work was a mindless drudgery. A large part of Morris’ pleasure in his work was aesthetic – it was the quality of his work that interested him. On the contrary, most of what he saw being produced around him was what he called “shoddy”. England was imposing its “shoddy” on the rest of the world:

“While we are met here in Birmingham to further the spread of education in Art, Englishmen in India are actively destroying the very sources of that education-jewellery, metalwork, pottery, calico printing, brocade weaving, carpet-making – all the famous and historical arts of the great peninsula have been for long treated as matters of no importance, to be thrust aside for the advance of any paltry scrap of so-called commerce … ” (The Art of the People, 1879, Cole ed, p.524).

Morris’ first active engagement in politics was anti-imperialist.

But he also saw that his work was impossible, given the existing pressures of commercial competition. In an interview for the Clarion, November 9, 1892, (quoted in Thompson, p.105) he says:

“Except with a small part of the more artistic side of the work I could not do anything ( or at least but little) to give this pleasure to the workmen, because/ should have disqualified them from earning their living elsewhere. You see, I have got to understand thoroughly the manner of work under which the art of the Middle Ages was done, and that that is the only manner of work which can turn out popular art, only to discover that it is impossible to work in that manner in this profit-grinding society.”

His own enterprise was only commercially viable because it was backed by a private fortune, but, even so, he was profoundly dissatisfied with it. He knew that he was not producing “popular art” but expensive luxury items for the rich, and he knew also that this “luxury” element, while giving him great scope for exercising his own curiosity about the methods of the past, was actually quite debilitating. He told his fellow socialist, Edward Carpenter (best known as one of the first – and only – defenders of the moral worth of a homosexual sensibility):

“I have spent, I know, a vast amount of time designing furniture and wallpapers, carpets and curtains; but after all/ am inclined to think that sort of thing is mostly rubbish and I would prefer for my part to live with the plainest whitewashed walls and wooden chairs and tables” (Thompson, p.109).

Social Revolution

Morris had been expressing his discontent since 1887 in the Lesser Arts. After six years of argument on the level of aesthetics, he decided that only a social revolution could bring about the changes that were necessary. What were the grounds for his aesthetic discontent’!

The Lesser Arts begins with some remarks on the relation between the “decorative arts” and the “fine arts”:

“Now, as to the scope and nature of these Arts, I have to say that, though when/ come into the details of my subject I shall not meddle much with the great art of Architecture and less still with the great arts commonly called Sculpture and Painting, yet I cannot in my own mind quite sever them from those lesser so-called Decorative Arts which I have to speak about: it is only in latter times, and under the most intricate conditions of life, that they have fallen apart from one another; and I hold that, when they are so parted, it is ill for the Arts altogether: the lesser ones become trivial, mechanical, unintelligent, incapable of resisting the changes pressed upon them by fashion or dishonesty; while the greater however they may be practised for a while by men of great minds and wonderworking hands, unhelped by the lesser, unhelped by each other, are sure to lose their dignity of popular arts, and become nothing but dull adjuncts to unmeaning pomp, or ingenious toys for a few few rich and idle men.”

Morris’ style is modelled on that of John Ruskin and the reader may find it offputting at first. But his point is clear. There is a continuum between the “decorative arts” – the production of objects for everyday use – and the “fine arts”, which, putting architecture aside, are ends in themselves. Both achieve their “dignity” through being “popular”, enjoyed and created by the people.

At various times in the past, the distinction between everyday decorative art and fine art was not at all clear-cut. Fine art was simply a superior degree of excellence or sophistication achieved by decorative art. But the two are now separated. Everyday art has been squeezed out of existence and fine art has become excessively refined. The disappearance of everyday art will necessarily lead to the extinction of fine art as well.


Division of the Arts

Morris goes on to explain the importance of his subject:

“Our subject is that great body of art, by means of which men have at all times more or less striven to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life: a wide subject, a great industry; both a great part of the history of the world, and a most helpful instrument to the study of that history.

“A very great industry indeed, comprising the crafts of house-building, painting, joinery and carpentry, smith’s work, pottery and glass making, weaving and many others: a body of art most important to the public in general, but still more to us handicraftsmen; since there is scarce anything that they use, and that we fashion, but it has always been thought to be unfinished till it has had some touch or other of decoration about it. True it is that in many or most cases we have got used to this ornament, that we look upon it as if it had grown of itself, and note it no more than the mosses on the dry sticks with which we light our fires. So much the worse! for there is the decoration, or some pretence of it, and it has, or ought to have, a use and a meaning. For, and this is at the root of the whole matter.  Everything made by man’s hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature and thwarts her; it cannot be indifferent: we ,for our parts, are busy or sluggish, eager or unhappy, and our eyes are apt to get dulled to this eventfulness of form in those things which we are al/ways looking at. Now, it is one of the chief uses of decoration, the chief part of its alliance with nature, that it has to sharpen our dulled senses in this matter: for this end are those wonders of intricate patterns interwoven, those strange forms invented, which men have so long delighted in: forms and intricacies that do not necessarily imitate nature, but in which the hand of the craftsman is guided to work in the way that she does, till the web, the cup, or the knife, look as natural, nay as lovely, as the greenfield, the river bank, or the mountain flint.

“To give people pleasure in the things they must perforce use, that is one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce make, that is the other use of it.

“Does not our subject look important enough now? I say that without these arts, our rest would be vacant and uninteresting, our labour mere endurance, mere wearing away of body and mind.”

It is extremely difficult to choose extracts from this wonderful essay. Everything he says is of value, and of immediate, vital importance to our own times. But it is so much out of accord with our present way of thinking – the evils he denounces have taken such a hold on us – that the reader may be tempted to skim over it, without paying attention to the details of his thought.

I therefore want to pick out a couple of key phrases in what has already been quoted: “For, and this is at the root of the whole matter, everything made by man’s hands has a form, which may be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature and thwarts her.” That is the key to the real radicalism of Morris’ thought – his opposition to machine production, which nearly all the more recent commentators – Niklaus Pevsner, E. P. Thompson and Peter Fuller, for example – attempt to underplay. Morris continues: “the hand of the craftsman is guided to work in the way that she does, till the web, the cup, or the knife, look as natural, nay as lovely, as the greenfield, the river bank or the mountain flint” (my emphasis).


Art & Machines

Art must imitate nature, not in its external appearance but in its way of working, says St. Thomas Aquinas. This is what “the hand of the craftsman”, guided by the eye, the heart and the intelligence can do that the machine cannot do. The machine is always “discordant with Nature and thwarts her.” No machine-made product can play, dance with the natural world. Whether it is a building or a motor-car, or a piece of modem sculpture- not to mention advertising hoardings – it is always imposed on nature.

When we run away to the countryside for a couple of weeks to escape from the town, it is because “our dulled senses” feel the need to be sharpened by “the greenfield, the river bank, or the mountain flint” – what there is left of them. Everything that surrounds us in our normal, town life, is experienced as an imposition. There is no pleasure in it But there is no reason in principle why everything we produce should “thwart” nature – our own nature, which complements and responds to the natural world about us. The problem is a recent one, unknown to this extent to any previous age, and it is posed by the introduction of the machine.

E.P. Thompson tries to argue that “he did not indict industrialism as such for degrading the craftsman to a machine, but capitalism, the production of goods primarily for- profit and not for use” (p.643). It is true that Morris believed that machines could take over some menial tasks, enabling more time to be given to more interesting work, but he is very cautious on the subject. In A Factory as it Should Be, he says:

“Furthermore, machines of the most ingenious and best-approved kinds will be used when necessary, but will be used simply to save human labour; nor, indeed, could they be used for anything else in such a well-ordered work as we are thinking about; since profit being dead, there would be no temptation to pile up wares whose apparent value as articles of use, their conventional value as such, does not rest on the necessities or reasonable desires of men for such things, but on artificial habits forced on the public by the craving of the capitalists for fresh and ever fresh profit …

“Now, next it may be allowable for an artist – that is, one whose ordinary work is pleasant and not slavish – to hope that in no factory will all the work, even that necessary four hours’ work, be mere machine-tending; and it follows from what was said above about machines being used to save labour, that there would be no work which would turn man into mere machines; … therefore, in no case, should any one person be set to run up and down after a machine through all his working hours every day, even so shortened as we have seen … ” (Cole ed., pp.649-50).

This is the essay Thompson leans on to show that Morris was not opposed to industrialism as such. Thompson wants to present Morris as a reasonable chap, amenable to the realities of the twentieth century – a socialist with a greenish tinge, rather like E.P. Thompson himself. But it is such a truncated and grudging use of the machine that it may as well be described as outright condemnation. “An artist – that is, one whose ordinary work is pleasant and not slavish” – it is in the light of this that we should read the phrase Thompson quotes (p.653) that sums the whole business up: “I believe machines can do everything -except make works of Art.”

Division & Death

But to return to The Lesser Arts.

Morris shows how the whole of human history is accompanied and illuminated by decoration. And in the course of his remarks he suggests that even oppressed peoples have produced good work: –1 must allow that these decorative arts have flourished among oppressed peoples, who have seemed to have no hope of freedom; yet I do not think that we shall be wrong in thinking that at such times, among such peoples, art, at least, was free; when it has not been, when it has really been gripped by superstition, or by luxury, it has straightaway begun to sicken under that grip … ”

But he goes on to say that the arts – both the lesser and the greater – are under threat, largely because the two have become so hopelessly separated:

“I must now ask you this question: All these good things – will you have them? will you cast them from you?

“Are you surprised at my question – you, most of whom, like myself, are engaged in the actual practice of the arts that are, or ought to be, popular?

“In explanation, I must somewhat repeat what I have already said. Time was when the mystery and wonder of handicrafts were well acknowledged by the world, when imagination and fancy mingled with all things made by man; and in those days all handicraftsmen were artists, as we should now call them. But the thought of man became more intricate, more difficult to express; art grew a heavier thing to deal with, and its labour was more divided among great men, lesser men, and little men; till that art, which was once scarce more than a rest of body and soul, as the hand cast the shuttle or swung the hammer, became to some men so serious a labour, that their working lives have been one long tragedy of hope and fear, joy and trouble. This was the growth of art: like all growth, it was good and fruitful/or awhile; like all fruitful growth, it grew into decay; like all decay of what was once fruitful, it will grow into something new.

“Into decay; for as the arts sundered into the greater and the lesser, contempt on one side, carelessness on the other arose, both begotten of ignorance of that philosophy of the Decorative Arts, a hint of which I have tried just now to put before you. The artist came out from the handicraftsmen, and left them with no hope of elevation, while he himself was left without the help of intelligent, industrious sympathy, Both have suffered; the artist no. less than the workman. It is with art as it fares with a company of soldiers before a redoubt, when the captain runs forward full of hope and energy, but looks not behind him to see if his men are following, and they hang back, not knowing why they are brought there to die. The captain’s life is spent for nothing, and his men are sullen prisoners in the redoubt of Unhappiness and Brutality.”

Death of Art

And then he makes his extraordinary prophesy of the Death of Art:

“In the meantime the present state of the arts and their dealings with modern life and progress seem to me to point, in appearance at least, to this immediate future; that the world, which has for a long time busied itself about other matters than the arts, and has carelessly let them sink lower and lower, till many not uncultivated men, ignorant of what they once were. and hopeless of what they might yet be, look upon them with mere contempt; that the world, I say, thus busied and hurried, will one day wipe the slate and be clean rid in her impatience of the whole matter with all this tangle and trouble.

“And then – what then?

“Even now amid the squalor of London it is hard to imagine what it will be. Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, with the crowd of lesser arts that belong to them, these, together with Music and Poetry, will be dead and forgotten, will no longer excite or amuse people in the least: for, once more, we must not deceive ourselves; the death of one art means the death of all; the only difference in their fate will be that the luckiest will be eaten the last – the luckiest or the unluckiest: in all that has to do with beauty the invention and ingenuity of man will have come to a dead stop; and all the while Nature will go on with her eternal recurrence of lovely changes- spring, summer, autumn, and winter; sunshine, rain, and snow; storm and fair weather; dawn, noon, and sunset; day and night- ever bearing witness against man that he has deliberately chosen ugliness instead of beauty, and to live where he is strongest amidst squalor or blank emptiness:”

I will leave this article there, because I want to leave that thought with the reader, It seems to me to be one of the great prophesies of the nineteenth century – on a par with Nietzsche’s prophesy of the Last Man in Thus Spake Zarathustra, better than Nietzsche, in fact, because Morris was, ,1,1. practical man and had a better understanding of the reasons for it. His prophesy has come true.



This article appeared in July 1993, in Issue 35 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.


[A] Found in in G .D.H. Cole ed: William Morris, London, Nonesuch Press, 1946)

[B] E.P. Thompson: William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary, New York, Pantheon, 1976, p.76